storytelling iconic characters

Why are iconic characters so memorable?

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Luke Skywalker was the obvious hero of Star Wars: A New Hope, so why does it seem like Han, Leia, and Darth Vader got all the attention?

When I think about the characters from Star Wars, Luke is often the last one who comes to mind. It’s not that he’s forgettable, but he doesn’t stand out from the crowd of characters who surround him, despite the fact that the story centers on him. The other characters overshadow him, even characters whose roles are not as critical to the story.

This can be a good thing for a story’s hero (or protagonist). If the hero is too iconic, they can veer off into becoming unrelatable. Make the hero someone that anyone can relate to (like Harry Potter, for example), and then surround the hero with unforgettable iconic dynamos.

All the characters from Star Wars are iconic, but some are more memorable than others. What can we learn from iconic characters, and how can we create unforgettable characters in our own stories?

Plot vs. Characters

Not all stories call for an iconic character. The Da Vinci Code was criticized for its relatively uninteresting characters, but the story is not about the characters; it’s about an ancient conspiracy, a puzzle. The characters are supposed to take a back seat to the plot, and an iconic character might have distracted readers from the story.

We can compare The Da Vinci Code and its protagonist, Robert Langdon, to Indiana Jones, whose quests are fun but not nearly as deep or complex as Robert Langdon’s. We want to go on Indiana Jones’s adventure because we want to hang out with Indiana Jones — he’s an iconic character! We take the Da Vinci Code adventure for the sake of the quest itself; any character could serve as a guide.

If you’re thinking about developing an iconic character, first ask whether it’s appropriate for your story. For example, skilled detectives might be interesting and likable, but they’re rarely iconic, because in the mystery genre, we’re reading to solve the mystery more than we’re reading to spend time with a particular character. For example, I like Harry Bosch just fine, but I didn’t read Michael Connelly’s books so I could spend time with Harry. I read to find out who committed the crime and how this mystery would be solved.

That doesn’t mean big, riveting, plot-driven tales can’t include iconic characters. But it’s worth considering whether you want your character to overshadow your plot or vice versa. Sometimes the best stories are a good balance of compelling characters and plot. They may not be what we’d consider iconic, but they’re riveting enough.

And sometimes, the iconic nature of a character isn’t evident until some time has passed. Certainly, Star Wars swept the globe when it hit theaters, and many of the characters were immediately embraced. But sometimes movies that surge in popularity immediately after release simply cannot withstand the test of time. A decade later, the film and its characters have faded. In other cases, a story or character that didn’t immediately enjoy widespread popularity will slowly permeate into the culture, rising slowly to iconic status, and that too is a mark of an unforgettable character.

Studying Iconic Characters

In film and literature, certain characters have captured people’s imaginations and won their hearts, often becoming more famous than the authors who created them. So what is it that makes some characters unforgettable? Let’s do a brief study of a few iconic and popular characters from film and literature:

Peter Pan (Peter Pan): Everything about Peter Pan is iconic from his personality to the way he looks and the way he lives. Peter Pan is the boy who never grows up. He’s all about fun and adventure. He lives on an otherworldly island with his friends, the Lost Boys. But consider Peter Pan’s image, particularly the one popularized by the Disney movie: he wears a green cap with a red feather in it, a green tunic and leggings. He’s got a knife on his belt and brown, pointy shoes. This ensemble is distinct and immediately recognizable.

Dorothy (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz): Dorothy is one of the most iconic characters of all time, thanks to the 1929 film based on L. Frank Baum’s books. Let’s look at the movie for this one. Dorothy is a teenager and decidedly girly with her blue frock and braids. She carries her little dog Toto around in a basket. And she’s wearing those sparkling red slippers! Dorothy’s ensemble is one of the most recognizable in popular culture. But despite her girlish appearance, Dorothy displays the kind of heroism that was rare in female characters back in those days. She liberates almost everyone she meets, kills the villain (the Wicked Witch of the West), unmasks the corrupt leader (the wizard himself), and in the end, learns that she’s had everything she needs to find her way home all along. Not only does this story feature an iconic character — it’s got adventure, iconic sidekicks, and was way ahead of its time.

Indiana Jones (Raiders of the Lost Ark): I already mentioned Indie, so let’s look at what makes him so iconic. Like many other iconic characters, he goes against the grain. By day, he’s a handsome, refined professor in a tweed suit and spectacles. The rest of the time, he’s a daring adventurer who risks life and limb for ancient archaeological artifacts. His iconic status gets a lot of help from his banged-up brown fedora and trusty whip as well his trademark wisecracks.

Iconic Characters Share Similarities

I once heard that the best stories are either about extraordinary characters in ordinary situations or ordinary characters in extraordinary situations. I’d say that most iconic characters break the mold; they are extraordinary and so are their situations.

We can observe similarities that make these iconic characters memorable: They all deviate from social norms and expectations. Most of them have distinct clothing or accessories and memorable catch-phrases. Plus, all of them end up in unusual circumstances: Peter Pan living in the magical world of Neverland; Dorothy is swept into the fantastical land of Oz; and Indie finds himself crossing the globe to chase after ancient artifacts with a dangerous enemy on his heels.

We can learn even more about iconic characters by asking questions and further studying them:

  • Why is Batman more iconic than, say, Aquaman? Why is Catwoman more iconic than Poison Ivy? Come up with a list of super iconic characters and characters who are well known but not as iconic, yet comparable. Compare and contrast!
  • Who is your favorite character (iconic or not) in film or literature? What was it that made the character so compelling to you? Was it the character’s looks? Attitude? Backstory?
  • There are popular characters, like Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird), and then there are truly iconic characters like Batman, Harry Potter, and Mary Poppins. What’s the difference between a popular character and an iconic character? What makes one character popular while another becomes iconic?

Do you prefer larger-than-life, iconic characters or do you like characters that are subtler and more nuanced? Are your favorite stories plot-driven or character-driven? Can you think of any other iconic characters? What other similarities do iconic or popular characters have in common? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

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